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‘Hedwig’ Creator John Cameron Mitchell Talks About His New COVID-era Benefit Album

Life is so apocalyptic these days that it can often feel like the tumultuous “thunder” interlude in “The Origin of Love,” the signature ballad from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. That, of course, is the queer rock-musical masterpiece created (with Stephen Trask) by John Cameron Mitchell, who created the title role on the New York stage way back in 1998 before adapting the work into a 2001 film and then reviving the role on Broadway in 2015. Mitchell also made the indie film classic Shortbus, directed films including Rabbit Hole (with Nicole Kidman), cofounded the beloved queer monthly Mattachine party at Julius’ bar (currently on COVID hiatus with the rest of New York City’s nightlife), and, in recent years, has had supporting roles on the TV shows The Good Fight and Shrill.

But early into COVID times, he found himself, as did many, isolated and depressed. So, working remotely with many collaborators old and new, Mitchell put together an album of nine brand-new tracks called New American Dream that you can either listen to free or buy your own copy of here, with all proceeds going to three great causes: the Mexico City transgender-friendly food pantry Burritos, Not Bombs!; the Transgender, Gender-Variant, and Intersex Justice Project; and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Trust Fund. The title track already has a bonkers DIY-style video that involves Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell devouring a certain current toxic U.S. president. He even lent one of the tracks to a recent PSA urging young Americans to become poll workers.

From Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he’s been based since June, JCM, as we like to call him, chatted with TheBody about the making of this very political album (many of whose tracks match the beauty of those on Hedwig), being caught between Trumpian proto-fascism and left-wing cancel culture, and how he’s been playing house mother to a bunch of out-of-work COVID-era artist friends.

Tim Murphy: Hey John! So you’re in P-Town these days?

John Cameron Mitchell: Yes, but I’m flying to Colorado Springs tomorrow to see my mom for the first time since COVID started. I’m not worried about flying. I just wear my mask and I’ll be fine; I’m fairly healthy. Colorado Springs is kind of a military evangelical town that has gotten a bit more liberal the last 10 years but is still basically like the town that Reagan built. If I lived in Colorado, I’d be in Denver.

TM: Have you been in P-Town since the start of COVID?

JCM: No, at the beginning of COVID, I was on tour in Portland, then grabbed my stuff in New York and went to Palm Springs for a couple months. I have friends there, and it was warm, so that was nice. I’ve been in P-Town the last two and a half months, and I’ll be here till the end of September, then back briefly to New York, then to Portland to shoot Shrill. I play the star Aidy Bryant’s boss at the weekly alternative paper where she’s the cub reporter and I’m her mentor-antagonist, kind of a Lou Grant narcissist gay former grunge guy.

TM: And on The Good Fight with Christine Baranski, you are still playing the part of Felix Staples, who is based on the gay right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, correct? What is your relationship to that character?

JCM: I was always both repelled and fascinated by Milo. When I’d watch his debates, he’d often pick humorless left-leaning people and do his British schtick. He’s actually pretty smart, but clearly attention-grubbing and pathetic. I would find myself agreeing with him about free speech, because it’s so important to me. It helps me identify the assholes. But Milo would also mix in very hateful speech in his argument, where you could sort of tell he was doing it for attention in that Ann Coulter way. Which in some ways is even more repulsive, when you make an inflammatory remark and don’t even mean it, versus an actual irony-free bigot. So when I was offered this TV role, I was very interested in this fractured psyche of someone who probably knew better but for whom being noticed was more important than morality. Or maybe I’m giving him more credit than is due, thinking he has a moral center. The married couple who run the show were very cool about letting me write my own lines, because I really thought about him and tried to make him much more entertaining, but also more pathetic, than he is in real life.

TM: Great. So how did this latest album project, New American Dream, come together?

JCM: On my last musical project, the podcast series, Anthem: Homunculus, I was challenged by my composer to write 20 songs in 12 hours. I was told, “We’re gonna get you out of this attitude that if you can’t play an instrument, then you can’t write a song.” On Anthem, they’d write lyrics and the musical setting, and I’d write the melody, and I liked collaborating that way. It was fun, instant gratification.

So with this new project, I reached out to various friends who I love and said, “Give me a track, and I’ll write melody and lyrics over it,” and as the song came together, I’d reach out to other friends and say, “Can you do a harp line or a bass line on this?” It was a stone soup kind of thing, all friends and friends of friends. It was a benefit project, so everyone did it for free.

TM: Do you know how it’s doing, fundraising-wise?

JCM: No. I never like to look at numbers. So we’re gonna give it three months, then our project manager will gather the money and spread it out. We’re going to do a second video, for the song “Say Their Names” [about transgender people who have been murdered], which will feature Qya Kristál, a nonbinary Boston and P-Town drag regular who likes to identify with the term two-spirit.

TM: It’s true that the video for “New American Dream” is really bananas. How was it made?

JCM: It’s all handmade—puppets and stop-motion animation, and time-lapsed painting, and a couple of drone shots we did in the P-Town High School field, using the drone of Sutton Hannigan, who makes drone videos of himself in drag. He calls himself Queen with a Drone.

TM: So, did the whole project pull you out of your COVID depression?

JCM: Totally. Creativity is the only antidepressant that really works for me without side effects. Right now, we all feel like we’re in some kind of mad nightmare. Nothing seems real. The song “American Sickness” is a more serious other side of the coin of “New American Dream.” Alynda Segarra of the band Hurray for the Riff Raff started it, and I finished it. It came out of the feeling that something’s really wrong in America, the sickness of not just COVID, but this insanity in the air where facts aren’t facts and empathy dissipates and we just don’t know who we are anymore. But it’s also great to see Generation Z so activated. It was very exciting for me, someone who grew up with ACT UP, to see young people with the same energy. And they’re gonna be called on a lot more in the year ahead.

So “American Sickness” is probably my favorite song on the album, because it taps into this unease that we’re feeling right now, a combination of late capitalism, digital overload, grievance politics, P.C. policing, and the fear of being canceled. There’s just so much fear in the air that some people are afraid to move at all. It seems like a sense of shame, stability, and agreeing to disagree no longer exist.

TM: That is so interesting. I was talking recently with a fellow Gen X friend about how it feels like this paradigm of the sanctity of unbridled free speech that we’ve lived with all our lives is breaking down, but that also maybe cancel culture is sometimes useful as a form of nonviolent resistance to bad things.

JCM: I guess I’m an old-fashioned free speecher. I worry that we’re replacing one set of rules with another. The original rules were like, if you’re gay, you can’t be gay, and if you’re a wife, you should obey your husband. All those things that shut down a sizeable number of Americans’ points of view. But the more recent tactics to ameliorate those grievances tend to be to shut people down, cancel them, get rid of them. Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing, which believes in redemption, but if you believe in prison reform and rehabilitation, then I’m sorry, you can’t believe in cancel culture. We all agree that certain people have to be stopped—Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Bill Cosby. But when you have a more nuanced situation where somebody is just dumb or thoughtless, and their career is shut down over it … I’ve known people this has happened to. They weren’t reading the room, they misspoke, and then their career is over. There was an amazing Zadie Smith story in The New Yorker a few years ago called, “Now More Than Ever,” where the character is quaking in her office for fear of being canceled.

TM: Haha, that’s funny—as a middle-aged, cisgender white male, I certainly fear saying the latest wrong thing and being canceled. Do you?

JCM: Sometimes. But even that fear of, “Oh my god, I’m a white man, therefore I’m a target,” feels like a weird fear to have. Friends of mine have said that those with the least power should always win the argument. That’s a very lazy generalization. It’s not a nuanced point of view, and as thinking, evolved people, we should realize there is nuance. The Republicans want to crush nuance. You’re either with or against us, good or bad. I hate when left-leaning people do that too. You’re just imitating your oppressor.

TM: It’s interesting that the character of Hedwig was quite gender-nonconforming for the late ’90s, but of course since then conceptions of gender have expanded radically, with so much new terminology. How do you think Hedwig would hold up in the nonbinary era?

JCM: All ages and genders and even nationalities have found Hedwig to be complex enough to relate to her. Hedwig isn’t a trans statement. In fact, she’d never identify as trans, because she was a happy femme boy forced into a government-sponsored patriarchal reassignment of his gender in order to be married and get out of the country, equivalent to Iran, where if you’re a gay man, the government will pay for your gender reassignment surgery to a woman so you fit the binary. So, no, I haven’t had any negativity about Hedwig from anyone, because generally people realize that the character is a metaphor for societal male-based trauma upon Hedwig’s body, and that drag was the tool that she used to take, quote-unquote, “what she was given” by life and make it into something beautiful. That’s why the drag is no longer necessary at the end of the story. Today, Hedwig is probably a nonbinary adjunct professor of German philosophy as it relates to rock and roll, at a school in the Midwest, clinging to their job under COVID.

TM: Haha! What became of Hedwig! So, this album’s title track, “New American Dream,” has that raunchy glam-rock sound we know from Hedwig. I know you love classic glam rock—Bowie, Queen, etc. What newer artists are you loving?

JCM: Actually, some of the people I’ve been working with. I’ve been listening a lot to Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff. I really think she’s our new Springsteen. She’s a Nuyorican from the Bronx, an incredibly powerful and empathetic performer. She has this Puerto Rican Lucinda Williams Springsteen Americana thing going that is just beautiful. I also love Ezra Furman, who is more known in the UK than here and who does the music for that show Sex Education on Netflix. He’s nonbinary and did a beautiful cover of “The Origin of Love.” I also love Perfume Genius, Solange—there’s so many great people right now. I’m working with Linda Perry on a musical project. She can write in any genre. She’s a great top, and I love being her [artistic] bottom.

TM: So, finally, let me ask how you’ve been coping with the COVID era and what you do for self-care, etc.

JCM: I’ve been really using COVID to develop parts of myself that I hadn’t. So I’ve been outside of NYC, meaning I’ve had more space. I saw the writing on the wall, so I skipped town. I’ve been missing the city, but I was already starting to lose my connection to it as it changed over the last 10 years. The things that were New Yorkish—welcoming young artists, nightlife, the music scene—were fading for economic reasons, and with the digital culture removing people from spaces together.

So, on lockdown I’ve been working out a lot. I lost 15 pounds. I have the body of a 21 year old again! I do a high-intensity interval training routine.

TM: Are you a burpees fan like me?

JCM: I hate them, but I do them. I’m also eating much more healthfully, avoiding the extra carbs and sugar. And I’ve been sheltering with a lot of indigent artist friends who lost their livelihoods and can’t afford the rent. Because of [having a part on the TV show] Shrill, I can have a house here that sleeps four artists who join me for my shows and videos. I’m sort of an Anna Madrigal.

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